Alexandra Yacht Club
Founded 1906

A Thomas Bick Boating Experience

Cruise through the Panama Canal (not on the Les Girls 2!)

Thomas Bick continues to sail, his enduring passion, even though he is almost 90. During the 2011 sailing season he was happily on his Capri 25, the Les Girls 2, for 31 day sails, 5 more than the previous season and only 2 less than in 2009 when I started keeping a log.

Thomas on Les Girls 2

Thomas‘ other passion, which he shared with his wife, Clementine, until her passing, was cruising. Over the winter, instead of travelling, we have been reminiscing over past winter trips. One of those great cruises I took with Thomas, a couple of years ago, was through the Panama Canal — that engineering marvel opened in 1914, it seemed against all odds, that changed the shipping business of the world.

Thomas always has an angle. When he invited us to join him on this cruise, I pointed out that he had already been on a Panama cruise, to which his answer was “ah yes, I have travelled it West to East, now we have to try it East to West”. This cruise was from Miami to Los Angeles. I was excited to do this cruise since the chance to traverse this fantastic marvel of engineering was of particular interest, as an engineer curious about technical wonders. However my interest lies deeper since my great-grandfather, a civil engineer, had worked on the building of the Suez Canal.

Thomas relaxing on board

We flew down to Miami and joined our favourite cruise line, Oceania, on which we have taken over a dozen trips already. For the first few days we visited stops in the Caribbean. One such stop was Costa Rica where we hired a guide to take us in a small open boat with an outboard motor. We put putted through irrigation canals in the hot steamy jungle and saw the great local wildlife. There were sloths hanging lazily from the trees and ominous alligators sunning themselves at the water‘s edge. Our big thrill for the day however was when the motor stalled and would not restart. Since I am a Canadian paddler, (and the youngest man on the boat) I was given a cumbersome plank to paddle with until another boat came by and towed us back to the dock.


The big thrill of the whole trip, of course was the great canal traverse. The journey through the 80km Panama Canal takes up to 10 hours, an all day affair. Early in the morning we woke to see our ship in the middle of a long line of ships of all sizes moving down a wide 12 km long approach channel, towards the first set of locks. On the port side we could see the sun rising. The canal runs almost due north to south as it goes from the Atlantic to the Pacific side due to the orientation of the narrowest part of the isthmus joining the two subcontinents. On each side we could see only jungle and we spotted a couple of alligators sleeping by the shoreline. All the ships we saw were heading towards the locks into the canal. Because the canal is not wide enough for ships to pass in all places, all the ships will pass each other in the middle of the day, in the great manmade lake, Gatun, beyond the locks, which is the only place where the water is wide enough.

Ship in locks

As we get closer to the locks we see two sets. Our ship moves to the left set. It is ironic to see that for such an advanced operation of technical genius, the preferred way of getting the first ship lines from ship to shore is to have a row boat with two men who catch the lines, row to the lock side and hand the lines to staff on land. As we enter the lock, more lines are thrown ashore and are attached to large locomotives (called mules) on rails that run alongside the canal walls and carry out the delicate task of ensuring that the ship stays centred and does not touch the walls as it moves further into the lock. We have to pass through three connected locks that lift the boat in three stages a total of 85 feet, the height of the canal above sea level. In each chamber we have to wait until the gates behind us close, the water rises to the level of the next chamber, and the doors open to allow us to move forward. As we move between chambers it is fascinating seeing the mules climb steep gradients, on a funicular cogged rail, to get to the ground level of the next chamber. Next to us, on our starboard side, we can see a Panmax cargo ship (a ship designed to be the maximum size possible to still pass through the canal), an auto carrier rising through the lock system. Unbelievably this ship has only inches to spare on each side of each lock. These cargo ships have a large windowless superstructure above the water that towers over us. Its weight must be 40-50,000 tons compared to our more modest sized boat of 35,000 tons. On our port side in the distance we could see the initial excavations for the new set of locks for the expanded canal.


Around noon, we finally arrive above the locks to Lake Gatun. This was created by building a dam across a river creating a large lake that stretched across the isthmus to the range of hills that are the continental divide on the other side. As we make our 24km way along the lake we pass ships coming the other way, then we make an 8 km journey up river to the narrow cutting “the cut” through the continental divide.


Through the 12km cut one can see excavators at work widening the cut to accommodate even larger ships in the future, when a new set of large locks will be opened. The capacity, in tonnage, will almost double when the new set of wider and deeper locks opens alongside the old in a couple of years.

The final stages seem anticlimactic; a single lock, another smaller lake, the final two stage lock to get back to sea level and the final 13km channel. As we leave the canal and pass Panama City, we stop, take on fuel from a tanker that draws alongside and then our ship proceeds north as the sun sets over the Pacific.


Over the next few days we relax on board as we make our way up the West coast of Central America. We stop in a resort in Guatemala where we find a charming little market displaying arts and crafts. In Acapulco, Mexico, we see the local divers leaping from the famous La Quebrada cliffs. They pray at a tiny lady chapel at the top and plunge into the sea by a small cove where their dives are timed to coincide with surges of waves to ensure the water is deep enough when they enter the surf. Those cliffs are not a place for sailing boats as we think of home and Les Girls 2. Finally we arrive in Los Angeles and fly back to Toronto after another terrific cruising experience.


Now back to our pleasant reality. It is time to think of the 2012 AYC season: getting the motor overhauled, the sails repaired, the hull of the boat cleaned, and raising the mast. We are looking forward to seeing everyone at their usual spots, saying hi, having a joke or two and wishing for lots of wind, not too many rainy days and a great summer of sailing.

Bernard Lewis (Thomas Bick‘s son-in-law)